How Black Women Track Stars Proved the Powerful Potential of the Olympics by Cat M. Ariail

The following is a guest post by Cat M. Ariail, author of the forthcoming book Passing the Baton: Black Women Track Stars and American Identity for our NASSH 2020 Virtual Exhibit. Ariail is a lecturer in the Department of History at Middle Tennessee State University.

November 2020

Ahead of the 1948 London Games, the infamous Avery Brundage, then the president of the United States Olympic Committee (USOC), proclaimed that the Olympics provide opportunity “without regard for race, creed, or color.” While Brundage optimistically, or possibly ignorantly, overestimated the Games’ meritocratic character, his words point to the significance of identity on the Olympic stage. Race, color, and creed, as well as gender and sexuality, are explain the enduring importance of the Olympics. Because the nations that compete in the Games continually have struggled with identity-based inequalities, from race and ethnicity to religion to gender and sexuality, the ability of a multiply-marked athlete to succeed in the Olympics can challenge a nation’s preferred, and often political, prerogatives, contesting and complicating conceptions of national identity.

In the postwar period, black women track stars who competed for the United States proved the powerful potential of the Olympic Games.

At the 1948 Games, Alice Coachman became the first black woman to win a gold medal, triumphing in the high jump. Her victory caused discomfort for American sporting and social institutions committed to white patriarchal superiority, implicitly raising critical questions: Who can be an athlete? Who can be an American athlete? Who can be an American? Four years later, a foursome of young American women athletes, three black and one white, offered an answer, grabbing the gold medal in the 400-meter relay in an unexpected upset. In response, the US sporting press attempted to cast the triumph as fluke, reflecting an unwillingness to reckon with the athletic autonomies and abilities of young women, especially young women of color. However, through these accomplishments and others, black American women track athletes used the Olympic stage to insert blackness and femaleness into the image of Americanness, in turn requiring US sport culture, from mainstream, white-controlled media to state-affiliated institutions, to reconcile the place of black women’s athleticism in the American sporting nation.

By the mid 1950s, larger sociopolitical developments began to shift perceptions of black women track athletes. Due to Cold War concerns and civil rights agitations, their athletic assertions of Americanness were reinterpreted, acquiring particular, propagandistic purpose. The double burden of race and gender, which previously had marked black women athletes as outsiders, now made them examples of American opportunity; they were embodied evidence of the possibility of American equality. Wilma Rudolph, winner of three gold medals at the 1960 Rome Games, exemplified this ideological shift. Sports Illustrated said of Rudolph, “With her lissome grace and warm smile, Wilma was not only a winner, she was delightfully American as well.”

This increased acceptance of black women athletes as American representatives also was aided by reconfigured ideas about the intersection of racial, gender, and sexual identities. The racialized gender anxieties that inspired resistance to black women’s athleticism were ameliorated by a racialized gender ideology — heteronormativity. Normative, white-defined femininity was a prerequisite to the acclaim, and, in turn, Americanness, of a black woman athlete. The black woman track star’s place in the American sporting nation was circumscribed, made to bolster, instead of challenge, the nation’s dominant ideologies of race, gender, and sexuality.

Thus, the postwar trajectory of black American women track stars somewhat pessimistically suggests that, for all the potential power of the Olympic platform, it fails to produce permanent, progressive change. Ideologies are reformulated in ways that discipline athletes into desired national representatives. But such a possibility for the athletic articulation of an alternative national identity remains, as moments of athletic excellence can contribute to the slow, stubborn erosion of conceptions of who can and should be an American athlete and, in turn, an American. By the 2016 Rio Games, black women athletes had extended their ideological influence beyond the track and field, infiltrating the traditionally-white sports of gymnastics and swimming to trouble long-entrenched notions about the “appropriate” relationship between race, gender, sport, and nation. At the now-2021 Tokyo Games, American athletes marked by multiple identities again will have the opportunity to expand the boundaries of American belonging.

By Cat M. Ariail

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University of Illinois Press Publicity Manager